WE USE RESTAURANTS to feed us, sure. We also use them to celebrate important milestones and significant social occasions, or to help us forget ourselves for a few hours as we dive into the world of the senses.
But restaurants also work on a larger level. They can speak to the health of a community, indicating and shaping its cultural values. More than that, they can add vitality to our urban public spaces. Violetta, in Simon and Helen Director Park in the heart of downtown Portland, succeeds most handily in this last respect.
Being essentially one with its surroundings, it's difficult to tell where Violetta ends and the park begins: seating and floors blend seamlessly into the surrounding expanse of bricks and benches, glass walls allow both natural light and park views, and a large terrace for outdoor dining is covered by a lofty glass pavilion, soaring high above.
The whole thing requires the operation to strike a difficult balance. Too fancy and the restaurant would skew the egalitarian premise behind a public park. Too lowbrow and it would tarnish the snazzy forward-thinking feel of the new crown jewel of downtown Portland.
Violetta deserves respect for stepping up with a menu that captures the locavore madness of Portland while tempering it with straight-ahead grub. It's best described as a museum café genetically spliced with a Burgerville. The result? Quoth Violetta: "Slow Food, Fast."
It's a good shtick for this part of the city. A downtown denizen can eat at Violetta for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and be mostly satisfied by food that's neither fussy nor greasy, hitting the table in plain paper wrapping. The service is snappy, too—ordering and production owe more to fast than slow food.
Mornings offer a farm egg and cheese biscuit sandwich that can (and should) be ordered with a spicy pork sausage patty. It's a fine edible with a square of flaky, buttery laminated biscuit holding a not-too-sloppy egg and zing from a melt of white cheddar. Not overly heavy, it's just enough to curb pre-work hunger.
You could go for fresh fruit and yogurt, granola, multigrain waffles, etc., but it's better to ditch the bullshit healthy pretenses and aim straight for the doughy, powdered-sugar-dusted beignets with a dipping sauce of aggressive, nearly savory chocolate espresso sauce. Better yet, bring a box to your boss and wait patiently for your raise.
Violetta at lunch means burgers. There are more options, but the sandwiches are under-salted and a tad disappointing, and the franks suffer from buns that are too big and too dry. The chicken salad club, for instance, is bland even with avocado and bacon. Simply not enough zip to the thing. And a chilidog somehow manages to be both dry and unwieldy, its components just not coming together cohesively. Maybe I don't trust their judgment in the franks department, considering one "Chicago style" daily special came topped with cream cheese, an addition less Chicago than Seattle.
The burger, on the other hand, is a lovely thing. The meat is well seasoned, not too fatty, and tender enough without being obnoxiously giving, but the toppings are what make it a hit. The house sauce has a touch of nice heat (likely from harissa), while the pickles pop with bright dill. The "10-hour tomatoes" are slightly sweet, shriveled, preserved little gems that have a "sun-dried" flavor, but remain quite soft.
Pair a burger with Violetta's magical fries. Honestly, I can't figure why they're so good. They look like normal fries, but somehow they seduce you into a starchy reverie from which you emerge finding yourself smelling of truffle oil or gorgonzola, your container empty, and your tie flecked with fry bits. Magic.
When it comes to dinner, you're covered there as well, with a whole (or half) slow-roasted chicken. The birds are quartered thoughtfully, and the meat is quite moist beneath browned skin with flavors of sage and thyme. Plus, it comes complete with truffle fries. Magic.
On the whole Violetta's fast fare is good, though it's clear they have room for improvement. But Violetta's true merits lay beyond burgers, fries, and beignets. The most wonderful thing about the restaurant is the life it gives to the surrounding park. It's clear that without the energy of the eatery, the park would have less character and life. Perhaps the space could have housed any restaurant to the same effect. But I think Violetta's brand of high-minded local fervor, applied to traditionally lower-class fare, is just about the perfect fit. Feeding us, sure, but feeding the character of the city as well.